Counting Cats in Zanzibar Rotating Header Image

Was the chief long term victim of the Hundred Years War limited government in France?

I have been rereading a couple of works that I have not looked at in many years – Sir John Fortescue’s “In Praise of the Laws of England” and “Of the difference between absolute and limited monarchy”.

Fortescue was writing in the late 1400s – at the time of the so called “Wars of the Roses” in England, but it is his picture of France that interests me here.

Some of what Fortescue writes is exaggerated, even bigoted. But there is, sadly, much truth in the picture he presents of France.

By the late 1400s France was a land where (as with Roman Empire) the professional army of the King could demand that people in towns and villages give them anything they needed (or claimed to need). And where the Estates General (the French Parliament) had given up the right to regularly approve (or decide NOT to approve) taxation – with th nobles of France having been bought off by imunity from most (although not all) taxation.

Also any ordinary person could be condemned to death in France by the King’s judges without anything that would be understood as a proper trial in England.

Roman law (in the sense of the Roman law of the Empire – with the Prince being above the law and able to change the law by his own WILL) had triumphed in France – with such “feudal” ideas as juries swept away. Louis XI (“Louis the Spider”) sat in his dark tower making up webs of “laws” on the basis of his whims, much like a Roman Emperor.

However, France had not always been like this. Once the nobles, townsmen and freemen of France had been strong in the defence of their liberties – and had forced such Kings as Charles the Bald to recognise them.

Indeed, for example, such things as even the King of France not having the right to take the land held by one family and give it to another had been accepted as an “old right” even as far back as the 877 Edict of Quierzy.

Juries (first, of course, as a form of gaining evidence rather than deciding a verdict) actually came to England from northern France – yet in France (by the time of Fortescue) they had been suppressed. After all one could not have a local group of freemen giving their formal view, either as evidence or as judgement, of the facts of the case – that might limit a judge in his desire to execute people, or to torture them (“putting the question” another feature of late Roman law) till they confessed.

So what had changed? How had such things as eternal taxation (as opposed to taxation considered as a emergency matter – to be approved, each time, by the Estates General) come to be? How had the French King mutated into something close to a Roman Emperor?

My own view is that the so called “hundred years war” with England (mostly faught on the soil of France) was the main factor in the transformation of France from having a limited government – to something that, whilst not totally without limits, was close to be like the government of the Roman Empire (unlimited government).

French desperation to survive conquest, and the desperate desire for “order” (as armed men of many masters and none plundered and killed in most of the country) led to the French people placing vast power in the hands of the government.

Remember what were considered terrible and exceptional circumstances in England during the so called “War of the Roses” had been the NORM in France for around a century.

It may be this that so transformed France from a land of limited government – to what Richard Burke (the son of Edmund Burke) was later to call a land where “the state was all in all”.


  1. Schrodinger's Dog says:


    An interesting piece.

    As the old saying has it: war made the state, the state makes war. Presumably then, more war results in more state. Western experience seems to bear this out: the size and scope of the state ballooned with the two world wars, plus the threat of a third.

    World War I was a tragedy from so many standpoints but especially, I suspect, a libertarian one. Had its horrors been avoided, I suspect we would all be a lot freer now.

  2. John Galt says:

    It depends what period you are talking about, certainly during Henry II’s reign when the initial courts were set-up, much of the distinction between England and France was geographical rather than political, with the heart and soul of the kingdom remaining in Anjou.

    I would strongly suggest that France only really began to have a truly separate identity as the nation we would understand to be France under Louis VII both during and immediately after the reign of Henry II of England.

  3. Single Acts of Tyranny says:

    the state it seems, needs bogeymen, real or imagined to justify its very existence. At least that’s what mencken thought.

    I have to say, I’m feeling optimistic as more and more people seem to get this.

  4. Paul Marks says:

    Henry II was never King of France – although he controlled more land than the King of France did.

    Technically Henry made homage to the King of France – but he did not pay feudal dues to him. His youngest son John did – not that did him much good (rather the reverse).

    Historically what we think of as France goes back to Clovis – the King of the Franks (from which we get the word “France”) who defeated the last Roman Governor of Gaul in 486 AD. However Clovis only really controlled what we would call nothern France – the submission of the Visigothic Kingdom of Toulouse in 503 AD was more formal than real.

    Indeed southern France really remains a different country (in fact if not in theory) till the Albigensian crusade of the 1200s. At roughly the same time that Philip II of France is defeating John.

    Of course this distinction between noble and other free man was strong in France

    Contrary to popular myth serfs (even as a legal status – and this status was not enforced) were very rare in France in 1789. Yet a gulf remained between noble and non noble (actually there were three sorts of “noble”, great, lesser and “robe” [judges] but let us not go mad) the idea (however much it was actually a fiction) that the nobles were from the “Free Men” (the Franks) and other French people were degenerate Romans and Celts who for centuries under the Empire had been little more than slaves of the Emperors.

    Certainly the taxation of the two was different (which was not in England) with nobles being taxed less than other people (the idea that they were not taxed at all is a myth) and being subject to different legal practices.

    In England the Norman invaders of 1066 had been such a small number of people that it had been absurd to think of them as a long lasting different people (they intermarried), however it was not till the time of Edward III that the official langauge of the court (and the law courts)was English.

    Edward III was a patron of English poetry and so on, but also looked back to a semimythical British past – for example he is the first king to really make a big thing of “Arthur”.

    Paradoxically it is Edward III who claims to be King of France – and thus the “100 Years War” begins. Actually his legal claim was not that bad (the idea that one could not trace things down the female line seems to have been made up by the French just to spite him), but CULTURALLY he was the most English or British (i.e. most alien – to French eyes) person to sit on the English throne since 1066.

    This even crept into his military ideas – for example that the bow was not a dishourable weapon (an idea that seems to have come from his Welsh and Cheshire subjects) and that perphaps nobles shoudl fight on foot as well as on horseback.

    Schrodinger’s Dog has a good point.

    Imagine that the 100 Years War had been faught on English soil.

    Say that the French invasion of England at the time of the end of King John had been the first of many invasions.

    It is quite possible that an England that emerged in “victory” after such a long conflict would have been just as nasty as the France of Louis XI.

    And we must not forget (as Fortescue seems to) how much resistance there was to “Louis the Spider” (a tyrant who wanted to regulate everything as much as the Roman Emperors had – sitting in his evil tower and spinning his webs of “laws”, hence his nickname”).

    Although, sadly, the “League of the Public Weal” was too closely associated with the personal position of Charles the Bold Duke of Burgandy.

    A true defeat for Louis the Spider might have been a moment in French history as the defeat of King John and Magna Carta were in English history (see Geoffrey Hindley “The Magna Carta: The Story of the Origins of Liberty” 2008).

    War can be the health of the state – BUT.

    If the state is defeated……

    Then things can be different. As long as those who defeat the state do not set themselves up as a new state – but concentrate on limiting the power of the state itself.

    “But they will concentrate on their own selfish interests” – so they may, it matters not. For they will be led by the logic of their position to make GENERAL restrictions on State power.

    “I do not want King John to do these things to me or my friends – errr how can I put that in legal terms…… how do we frame these things priest…..”

  5. Paul Marks says:

    Of course Charles the Bold was destroyed by the Swiss – perhaps he should have been called Charles the Rash.

    I wonder if anyone ever called Louis XI “Louis the Spider” to his face? Rather unlikely methinks.

    These nicknames…..

    Did anyone ever, for example, say…..

    “Ferdinand the Dark – the army of your enemy Alfonso the Good is approaching”?

    And, contrary to the idea that winners write history it was Ferdinand (the true Founder of the Spanish Inquisition amongst other wickedness) who won.

    Still even pro evil histories can be revealing.

    I remember reading (long ago) an old work that was pro Ferdinand and Isabella.

    It praised them for ending the wickedness of the court of old Henry IV of Castille “where the women carried daggers” (they seem to have been rather free people) and praised the cleverness of the Ferdinand amd Isabella.

    For example, how they gave a pledge of safe conduct to the governor of a frontier fort so they could have talks – but had a priest absolve them of their oaths.

    So they could execute the governor.

    How clever!

    Why are you looking like that?

    It is almost as if you think that Ferdinand and Isabella were replusive people – so repulsive that even their hired propagandists can do little more than reveal their wickedness.

    Destroying the Parliament of Castille (in all but name) destroying the independence of the towns (and of Galicia) persecuting the helpless (Jews and Muslims – and anyone else with money who they might claim were Jews or Muslims even if they were not, Ferdinand had a rather flexible view of religion) and on and on…..

    But it was all for the good because the daughter of Henry IV of Castille was not really his daughter – at least so Isabella and Ferdinand said, and they never lied (unless they had a priest on hand to absolve them).

  6. Mr Ed says:

    This begs the question as to the extent that the prevailing ideas in a society are transmitted through the generations. I reject ethnic polylogism, there is no mechanism for different ethnic groups to have different political ideas or preferences ceteris paribus, but the ideas and attitudes that float around in a population, and ultimately enter people’s heads and cause them to act, come from somewhere, few are the Kaspar Hausers in this world.

    The next question is how can prevailing ideas be changed? Looking at any newspaper commments/blog suggests that not a few people are not prepared to think logically, or lack that capability.

  7. Single Acts of Tyranny says:

    “The next question is how can prevailing ideas be changed? Looking at any newspaper commments/blog suggests that not a few people are not prepared to think logically, or lack that capability”

    Indeed. As a species we seem to form opinions emotionally then look for justifications as opposed to looking at the facts and forming rational ideas as a result. This explains much of politics and the really, obviously dumb ideas.

  8. Lynne says:

    As a species we seem to form opinions emotionally then look for justifications as opposed to looking at the facts and forming rational ideas as a result. This explains much of politics and the really, obviously dumb ideas.

    I think you have just hit the nail squarely on the head, SaoT. We need more rationalists and fewer knee-jerk progressives.

  9. John Galt says:

    Lynne, it’s not just the progressives that are the problem, although they are the main one, it is the social conservatives as well.

    While a progressive will pick your pocket to piss-against-the-wall on welfare, the social conservatives instinct of banning or regulating things that they don’t like, or at least don’t like the proletariat to have is also a problem.

    This is why pursuit of politics is not the answer, limited government is the answer, because it is only through this approach that the power of both aspects of political totalitarianism can be controlled.

    “Here endeth the lesson” says the cleric, preaching to the choir.

  10. Lynne says:

    …limited government is the answer…

    Another nail squarely hammered.

  11. “…limited government is the answer…

    Another nail squarely hammered”

    Not entirely, it does pose the question “How do you stop a Roosevelt type figure grabbing power, simply abandoning the constitution and vastly expanding the state until you are back to a modern nation state?”

    If the democratic choice is simply three clowns offering the same flavour tax serfdom there is a real problem.

  12. Lynne says:

    I don’t see the three clowns as a democratic choice which is why I don’t vote for any of them.

    As for power grabs then perhaps we should make politics a limited term duty rather than a profession. And and that goes for all the Sir Humphreys and assorted mandarins too. The civil service wonks are as much to blame for this mess as the politicians are.

  13. John Galt says:

    “How do you stop a Roosevelt type figure grabbing power, simply abandoning the constitution and vastly expanding the state until you are back to a modern nation state?”

    Piano wire and lamp-posts are the traditional solutions to abuse of executive power, but a better solution is to forever bar federal or state government and ensure that any remaining national institutions are constitutional bound to serve the people at a local level.

    Like Switzerland, only more so…

  14. Paul Marks says:

    Mr Ed I certainly do not believe that ideas are nationally predetermined.

    Although French government statism can even be traced back to Charles the Great – who made the choice of defining a “just price” as a state decided price (as with the late Roman Empire) – Bavarian law (in the same period) went the other way and ruled that a “just price” was a freely decided price.

    The might French “Liberal School” (Bastiat, the Say family and so on) show that ideas are not nationally determined.

    However, the principle of peacetime taxation and law as a way of “managing society” was never done away with in France.

    And, for the record, the Englishmen Sir John Fortescue has bad ideas.

    That state control of some 20% of output would be a good idea (because Joseph said so in Ancient Egypt – yes the “argument” is that daft).

    And that a Council of State should be established in England to try and make more money come into England than leaves it.

    Yes “balance of trade” mercantalism (in the 1400s).

    Never trust an economic thinker whose first name is “John”.

    John Fortescue,

    John Hales.

    John Law.

    John M. Keynes.

  15. John Galt says:

    “Never trust an economic thinker whose first name is “John”.”

    Oh, bugger!

  16. Mr Ed says:

    Paul, I know that you were not.

    John is but a variant of a name, Jean-Michel Jarre is thinking of leaving France for tax exile in the UK, yes I know Guernsey would have been a better bet, and he might have some silly ideas about Silicon roundabout, but it’s a start.

    Any ‘Seáns’ spring to mind?

    Is there one ‘Juan’?

  17. Paul Marks says:

    I am sure that both Mr Ed and myself would make an exception for the great John Galt….

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *